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Parshat Ekev  July 31,2021 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

There is a radio podcast on NPR called, “This American Life” that is narrated by Ira Glass, a not very religious Jew who had a pretty religious background. I have listened to it from time to time, but I don’t really have much time to spend listening to radio. Dr. Neil Brooks, our member, told me that I should listen to a particular episode of the podcast, and if I can’t hear the whole thing, I should check out the first 10 minutes. 
I accepted that challenge and looked up the episode on the internet and listened to the first 10 minutes; actually, I only needed the first 7. The episode is called, “The Weight of Words” and it opens with Ira Glass talking to a Methodist minister who claims that he does not believe in every word of the Bible. This takes Mr. Glass back a few months to the last time he went to minyan with his father on the Yahrzeit of his mother. Mr. Glass had attended minyan many times as a child; he knows all the prayers by heart but has not attended minyan in over a decade. The first thing this radio host notices that every day at the minyan is a rerun. They do the same prayers every day in the same order and mostly with the same melodies. 
The next thing he notices is that the prayers themselves mostly praise God. Even the Kaddish is a long list of adjectives that praise and extol God and he is amazed that this is supposed to be a comfort to the family for the death they are mourning. Mr. Glass begins to ponder “What does God get out of these praises?”
But it raises a bigger question; does God care that we love God? What is the purpose of our praising and expressing our love for God? Mr. Glass does not use these questions to take pot shots at Judaism or religion, but, as one steeped in prayer, he understands that much of this praise is to teach us that describing God and our relationship to God is beyond our ability to use language. God, after all, is not human and our words are way too limiting. We line up all these words of praise to help us understand that all the words will never be enough to fully express our feelings about and toward God. 
Take a look in our Siddur on Page 145, the prayer we say just before we begin our formal morning/Shacharit service. It describes just how impossible it is to express our feelings about God. In the Podcast, the Methodist minister notes that he believes that God represents the values of the Bible, and the praise is how we commit ourselves, how we pledge ourselves, to live the values we ascribe to God. Prayer is not about changing God. God has no need for our words. The prayers are for us to articulate what we believe is important in the world, what the Torah teaches us is important in the world, and to dedicate our lives to those values. 
Mr. Glass closes his section of the podcast noting that in spite of the excessive praise, the words are indeed comforting. Just knowing that his family has been saying this prayer, the Kaddish, for generations, back hundreds of years, in the end they comfort him as he remembers his mother. 
That is the podcast, but we can push this farther. In a few weeks, on Erev Yom Kippur, we will recite Kol Nidre, the one prayer that brings Jews back to synagogue more than any other prayer. I can tell you; it is not the words that bring people back. The words are anything but poetic. It is a formula for annulling a vow. Kol Nidre does not use beautiful language. So why does it bring Jews back year after year? It is the melody that is haunting and woe to the Cantor who might think of changing the melody. 
If services are a “rerun” every day, what about Birkat Hamazon, the blessing we say after we eat. That prayer is commanded in our Parsha this week. That is a rerun prayer we are supposed to say 3 times a day! Again, it is not the words that are important. The Torah itself teaches that its purpose is the teach us that when we have eaten and are satisfied, we are to bless God, to remember that all we own is not due to only our own effort. That God, and God’s values, have helped us become who we are.
At the end of our Parsha is the section that has become a big part of prayer, at least twice a day. This week we read the place in the Torah where the second paragraph of the Shema is to be found. It teaches us that if you follow God’s laws, then rain will fall, and the land will be fertile. If you don’t obey God’s laws, then there will be drought and famine. Most services have this paragraph recited individually. My son, a rabbi in an Atlanta congregation, has taken to reading it out loud, chanting it according to its trop. It is a controversial move. The prayer is very difficult from a theological point of view. If you, as an individual, sin, then everyone will suffer famine. It does not sound very fair. We can take an ecological point of view that if we pollute this world, then yes, everyone will suffer. If we do not do our part to end climate change, then lots of people will suffer extreme, heat, flooding, and severe storms. But is it true? Do my individual actions really change the world? If I don’t properly recycle my plastic waste, will the world really fall apart? If I don’t observe the mitzvot, the obligations that God has commanded, will I bring destruction to the world?
I want to be clear here that for some zealous Jews, this is indeed true. Every word of it. Fundamentalists in every religion claim to believe every word of scripture as literally true. By saying these words, and by following every mitzvah exactly as proscribed, we create a better world, and if we or anyone else should fail, then that is the reason that this world is disappointing and why there is such evil in the world. To the zealots, if God’s words are not true and accurate, then it is as if we are claiming that God does not exist. The Rabbis of the Talmud teach that it was because of this zealous keeping of the law, without compassion, that the Temple was destroyed, and we were sent into a long exile. 
Rabbi Yizchak Greenberg, one of the great living philosopher Rabbis of our day, wrote in his Torah blog for Yeshivat Hadar this week: “The lessons of the Rabbinic insight of God’s further self-limitation have vital implications. For one, it means that our prayers are not credible unless they are matched by our actions as a people to fight evil, and to take effective political and military action to secure the good and protect evil’s potential victims, including the Jews. For two, one of the chief validations of the presence of God in the world is the security and flourishing of Jewry. In this Rabbinic view, all Jews who support Israel, who build its economy and fight for its political and military security, are fighting in the front line of religion, and giving testimony to a world about God and covenant.” Rabbi Greenberg goes on to say, “the Rabbis added: God is the God of truth. God does not want empty, old style pious praises. In our circumstances, these pious words are lies because we are called to act instead: to protect the vulnerable, to protect Jewry and Israel as the covenantal people, and to defeat evil forces. Our deeds tell the truth about the presence of God and the nature of the world we live in.
If we were to meet our favorite movie star, athlete, or politician, what would we say to them? We certainly don’t want to sound like an idiot and just say how much “we adore them”. We don’t want them to think of us as creepy because we know every detail of their work and their life as we learned from the news and gossip pages. How can we meet someone important and not make a fool of ourselves? 
The same applies to God. If you could talk to God directly, with God listening to what you have to say, what would you say? Would you try to tell God how to run the world better? Would you run off a list of things you want God to do for you and your friends? Would you just tell God how wonderful you think God is? What would you say to God if you had God’s undivided attention?
It is not a hypothetical question. We get that chance three times a day, when we recite the Amidah. We take three steps forward to approach God and offer God what is on our mind. The Amidah is only a framework, we are supposed to use the prayers as a springboard to what we want to say. Look at the last prayer we say at the end of the Amidah. On page 166 of our Siddur, we offer a personal prayer. It is an example of what we can ask of God. The “B” paragraph is an alternative version so you can get the idea of what is possible.
Prayer is no magical incantation that if you say it the right way, you will get what you want. Prayer, and the words of Torah as well, are meant to guide us in our lives. They are designed to open our lives up to what is possible if we share the values that they teach us. The only reason we learn in the Torah and in the Siddur that God is merciful, full of compassion, forgiving, filled with kindness and grace for everyone, is so we know that we, the people created in God’s image, should work to make ourselves merciful, full of compassion, forgiving, filled with kindness and grace for everyone. If we don’t believe that, then truly our words are mere lip service to God. The words are empty of meaning if we say them without meaning them. The comfort of prayer is found where Ira Glass found it, in the words that have comforted generations of our people. So many words are recited and forgotten, but the words of our prayers have stood the test of time, and no matter what they say, we find meaning in their music and their history. There is far more to prayer than the translations on the opposite page. 
In our parsha Moses understood this. If we don’t believe that God makes our lives possible by giving us the values to live a meaningful and kind life, then we will grow selfish and self-centered.  But if we can live the lives we pray for, if we can bring God’s values into our own lives, if the words are less important than living the words we pray, then we can see the redemption of this world, and we will see our role in making it happen. 
We pray that we take the words of Torah that we have learned and the words of prayer that we recite and turn them into active parts of the lives we live. If God’s words show us the way to living meaningful and productive lives, then we will know the true nature of God.  May this be our goal in life as we say…..
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

 

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782